Cat Videos and Auschwitz? The Perils of Using Social Media to Discuss the Holocaust

Clicking “Follow” on a Twitter account may not seem like the most effective way to memorialize the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. But in a high-profile effort, the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum set a goal of reaching 1 million Twitter followers by January 27 – the date when the Red Army entered the notorious death camp in 1945.

Originally, the museum’s campaign aimed to get to 750,000 followers by the anniversary date. But with the surge in anti-Semitic incidents around the world over the past year, celebrities and social media influencers leapt on the bandwagon and joined the campaign. After hitting its first goal by November 30, it upped the target to the million mark.

The feed’s million or so followers will regularly view the photographs and stories of victims who passed through the gates of the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Most, but not all, are Jewish. Most were killed there, but there are also stories of survival. There are frequent “This day in history” posts on important dates. The art and writing of Auschwitz victims and survivors are posted and promoted, and other important Holocaust-related news is retweeted and amplified.

The feed – along with the memorial and museum’s Facebook and Instagram accounts – is the handiwork of Pawel Sawicki, the museum’s press officer since 2007. Over his 12-year tenure, his role has extended beyond the traditional duties of guiding journalists and writing press releases, and into the online arena.

– Auschwitz Twitter

It took us over 5 years to reach to the first 50,000 followers. We hope that within the next week, for #Auschwitz75, we will get the 50,000 missing to 1 million & beyond.

Your support has been incredible. We kindly ask for a bit more.

— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) January 20, 2020

Sawicki clearly remembers the internal debate in 2009 over whether it was appropriate for the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial to create a Facebook account – something no Holocaust museum or memorial had yet done, he says.

“We were cautious and viewed it as an experiment. We were worried that it would be seen as offensive to put our materials in a place where they would appear alongside people’s family photos and cat videos,” he tells Haaretz in a phone interview. “I was ready to shut it down at any moment because of that. But we noticed that people were searching for information about Auschwitz on Facebook – and what appeared was often inaccurate. And so we asked around if people wanted us on social media, and the answer was yes.”

Today, it is a point of pride for Sawicki that the museum’s social media accounts have a combined total of more than 1.4 million followers. He sees social media activity as playing a key role in fulfilling his institution’s mission. “We know there are billions of people who have never visited any Holocaust-related sites or museums. And now there is something we can do about it,” he says. “We can reach and educate people who for many reasons cannot be here.”